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Investigations Into the Deaths of Several Prisoners and Two Guards Reveal Rampant Corruption, Cover-ups in California Prison

by Keith Sanders

When Brant Daniel found himself in one of California’s most violent and corrupt prisons, the California State Prison (CSP) in Sacramento, known as New Folsom, he knew he was in trouble. Daniel, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, potentially faces the death penalty for the October 2016 murder of fellow prisoner Zachary Scott at the Salinas Valley State prison, so he is no stranger to trouble or violence. But Daniel’s attorneys, John Balazs and Timothy Warriner, are asking a federal court to move him to a different prison for his protection. From whom? Guards employed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), who have allegedly harassed him and even planted a knife in his cell.

In filings entered on December 28, 2021, the lawyers also claim that two guards wrote replies to notes from Daniel, admitting they could hear his privileged phone conversations with counsel. It is the latest attempt in a year to move Daniel out of CSP-Sacramento since their January 2021 court filings claiming that “rogue” guards “have planted weapons and drugs in inmates’ cells in order to obtain more overtime, have spread false rumors and relayed confidential information from inmates’ files to other inmates in violation of CDCR policy, and on at least two occasions have been directly involved in the killing of a CSP-Sacramento inmate.”

With a staff of 2,500, CSP-Sacramento houses almost 2,200 prisoners. A security-level 4 facility, the highest in the California prison classification system, it is home to the state’s most violent and dangerous prisoners, as well as patients so mentally ill that they are too dangerous to be housed in mental hospitals.

Daniel is one of several Aryan Brotherhood members locked up at the prison facing charges stemming from a June 2019 racketeering indictment against the group. But prisoner assaults on guards are also rampant, where prison staff allegedly face “gassing”—when prisoners throw feces and urine on them—almost daily.

As an anonymous guard told the Sacramento Bee, “[Y]ou have to be hard. You have to know when to flip that switch and get crazy. Because if you don’t fight that crazy individual with a crazy mentality, you’re going to lose.”

Yet much of that “crazy mentality” at New Folsom by guards is also corrupt and illegal.

In their court filing, Daniel’s attorneys also revealed that a New Folsom guard provided much of the information for their suit. That was Sergeant Kevin Steele, who began his career as a prison guard in 2001 at San Quentin State Prison. In 2008, he was promoted to sergeant and transferred to New Folsom where he eventually joined the Investigative Services Unit (ISU) in 2015.

As a member of ISU, a detective unit inside the prison, the 56-year-old sergeant acted as the unit’s criminal prosecution coordinator and facilitated investigations involving outside agencies like the FBI, local law enforcement, and the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office. Steele also trained in-coming guards on how to collect evidence and conduct investigations.

As an investigator, Steele had expertise and knowledge about prisoner investigations. And what he saw in the course of his work caused him concern, sufficiently so to write several memos to CSP-Sacramento Warden Jeffery Lynch and the state corrections secretary detailing how other ISU member were falsifying documents, planting evidence on prisoners, and even conspiring to murder prisoners. Guards who spoke anonymously with the Sacramento Bee described Steele as a “meticulous professional.”

In one memo, Steele wrote that at “every single juncture where I discovered something that resembled corruption, wrongdoing, exploitation, fraudulency and/or breeches of trust, I ALWAYS alerted supervisory staff and institutional leadership, as that is what I thought was the desire of both the administrative staff and [CDCR],” and adding “it would appear that is NOT the desire of either entity.”

Tragically, Steele committed suicide on August 20, 2021. Why? Once other guards and members of ISU discovered that one of their own was a “snitch,” they harassed Steele mercilessly, and even mistreated and threatened him. Eventually, Steele was forced to take a leave of absence in February 2021 and, amazingly, on February 12, 2021, he was barred from returning to the prison.

CDCR’s press secretary, Dana Simas, refuted Steele’s claims of harassment and noted in an email that the investigator was “banned due to a misconduct investigation,” though she declined to clarify the nature of the misconduct, adding only that it was not the “result of whistleblower retaliation.”

Yet Steele was the second ISU whistleblower to die after being mistreated and harassed. In 2020, guard Valentino Rodriguez, 30, was found dead of an accidental fentanyl overdose at his home. Relatives and friends reported that he was “throwing up all the time at work and hyperventilating” because he was suffering from PTSD and depression. He gained 45 pounds and began seeing a therapist. Rodriguez took a leave of absence on January 28, 2020, and died soon after.

The relatives of Rodriguez filed a complaint with the Office of Internal Affairs alleging racial and anti-gay slurs from his fellow guards had contributed to Rodriguez’s decline in mental health. After an initial investigation, an internal affairs officer concluded that a “reasonable belief was established to allege serious misconduct occurred.” Ten guards were disciplined for Rodriguez’s hazing and mistreatment, and CDCR moved on December 28, 2021, to fire two more. None was identified.

The corrupt and abusive culture inside New Folsom reflects a larger trend for the health of prison guards. In 2017, a study by the University of California, Berkeley, found that guards are “exposed to violence at rates comparable to military veterans, and that the job is linked to health problems, depression and suicidal thoughts.” According to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, nine guards committed suicide in 2020.

Yet the mental health of guards should not detract from the misconduct they direct toward prisoners at New Folsom. Steele was threatened primarily because he blew the whistle on corrupt guards and cover-ups involving two prisoner deaths where guards played a role.

Attorneys for one of the dead men, Luis Giovanny Aguilar, 29, claim in a civil rights lawsuit that prison guards “via their willful indifference to prevent and their actual facilitation of the murder of Mr. Aguilar conspired to cause” the prisoner’s death in December 2019.

Three other prisoners, Dion Green, Anthony Rodriguez and Cody Taylor, were restrained with metal cuffs in chairs along with Aguilar. Video of the incident shows that after Taylor and Rodriguez slipped free from their restraints they went to the second floor to grab a weapon. When they returned, they attacked Aguilar, who remained cuffed to his chair.

Ultimately, Taylor pleaded no contest and was sentenced in May 2021 to 100 years to life, plus two years. Charges were still pending against Rodriguez and Green on December 10, 2021, when Aguilar’s mother filed a federal lawsuit alleging that video evidence showed guards let the prisoners who killed him make a “practice run” a week before the murder. Although CDCR insists that no staff was involved with Aguilar’s murder, the incident took place in full view of guards on the first floor.

Steele had also provided information to an attorney for 29-year-old Milton Beverly, who was found dead in his cell in 2016. Disputing prison staff’s claim that Beverly had hanged himself alone in his cell, Steele told the lawyer, Steven Glickman, that another prisoner had confessed, both in writing and on video, to killing Beverly in a fight over the telephone. Yet when Glickman reviewed the documents relating to his client’s alleged suicide the “confessions were missing,” he noted. Steele notified Warden Lynch of the missing documents and indicated to Glickman that he would publicly testify to their existence, but his subsequent suicide prevented that from happening.

In November 2020, guards Ashley Marie Aurich, 32, and Arturo Pacheco,38, were indicted after the death of an unnamed 65-year-old prisoner in 2016. Aurich was charged with Falsification of Records in a Federal Investigation (18 U.S.C. §1519) and pleaded guilty in January 2021. Pacheco’s indictment listed two counts under the same charge and two more counts of Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law (18 U.S.C. §242), for which he is still awaiting trial.

The charges stemmed from an incident in which Aurich, Pacheco, and at least three other guards were escorting a handcuffed prisoner from one cell to another. According to Pacheco’s indictment, he released his grip on the prisoner’s arm during the escort and then wrapped his arms around the prisoner’s legs, causing him to land face first on the floor. The prisoner was taken to the hospital where he died two days later. The indictment also alleged that Pacheco falsely stated he used “immediate force” because he was trying to stop the prisoner “from self-harming himself and causing serious bodily injury or death to himself.”

As for Aurich, her indictment alleged she “knowingly and falsely stated that the only witnesses to the assault…were Correctional Officer 1, Correctional Officer 3, and Correctional Officer 4, intentionally concealing the presence of Correctional Officer 2,” which was Pacheco.

To date, the corruption and mistreatment of both staff and prisoners at New Folsom continue unabated. Officials are quick to insulate many of the guards from administrative or legal consequences for their actions by claiming no wrongdoing or putting the blame on prisoners. Moreover, promises of investigating misconduct by guards are minimized by having investigations performed by ISU, the very same unit that saw two of its members hazed, threatened and harassed to the point of death for uncovering the misconduct of others in the unit. This is nothing new and has been the norm in CDCR for at least a half century if not longer.  

Sources: AP News, Sacramento Bee

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